Thursday 24 January 2019

Unionism needs to learn that there's no 'I' in team

Former Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and First Minister Arlene Foster at Number 10 Downing Street. Photo: PA
Former Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and First Minister Arlene Foster at Number 10 Downing Street. Photo: PA
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Now is no time for slow learners in any of Northern Ireland's camps - the Brexit challenges are too pressing to allow for that. So, the number one lesson to emerge from Stormont's collapse is that while hardliners wear various guises, they can never be the future.

You could call it the Arlene Foster Tutorial. Or how not to behave in a power-sharing arrangement.

It would be helpful if Sinn Féin shows that the Foster lesson has been absorbed in its choice of a new leader for the Northern Assembly. That message can be reduced to just one word: 'Us'. Not the 'us' of party interests but the 'us' of the Northern community's common interests, nationalist and unionist alike.

Power sharing can only succeed with cooperation between the two traditions - a willingness to forgive and be forgiven. Mrs Foster is the model for what can go wrong if diehards, and people trapped by the past, and those who don't see the big picture, are given free rein.

Stormont has collapsed because of a public finances scandal. But the operation of power sharing was weak enough to fall because, fundamentally, the former first minister could not accept the 'us' element of her role and consequently was unable to convey its necessity to her party. Leaders must guide their followers beyond where they wish to travel.

So, does Sinn Féin have a politician who can step out from behind Martin McGuinness's long shadow and play the 'us' role with conviction and courtesy, as the outgoing deputy first minister did? Does the party have a new Northern Assembly leader in the wings capable of communicating with unionists, as well as speaking to his or her supporters? That's what's needed here.

The DUP should also reconsider its position because the Arlene Foster Tutorial shows that making no move towards reconciliation - in fact, adopting positions with the reverse impact - hampers Northern Ireland's interests.

That uncompromising instinct, as demonstrated by Mrs Foster and others, may prove contrary to the DUP's own interests, with an unwelcome election in which 16pc fewer seats are available. The Assembly is scaling down from 108 members to 90, with one fewer MLA returned in every constituency.

Undeniably, elections are a distraction, hampering the ability of Stormont politicians to make an input into Brexit negotiations. In a world of economic and political instability, this is a serious deficit.

However, the question is not why power sharing broke down, but why did it not happen before now? The links in the chain were already under severe strain before the 'cash-for-ash' scandal because the 'us' factor was being set aside in government.

Mr McGuinness understood that joint dynamic, and the necessity for cooperation in good faith, and tried to reach out to unionists - acting as an example to his own community in the process. Consequently, he is a loss to unionists as deputy first minister.

Look at those photographs of him shaking Queen Elizabeth's hand in Belfast in 2012, and joining in a toast to her proposed by President Michael D Higgins during a royal banquet in London in 2014. There's even a recent photograph of Mr McGuinness posed beside a portrait of the monarch to celebrate her 90th birthday.

Such images are a concrete act of reconciliation: intended to demonstrate leadership to his community and goodwill towards unionists, who have an abiding affection for their royal family.

The challenge for his successor - a figure likely to be in office as deputy first leader within months - is that neither by behaviour nor language must they hint at anything which could bring about a revival of tribalism. Even during the election campaign, they have a responsibility to begin as they mean to proceed.

The North faces difficulties as a region neglected for generations, despite the subvention from Her Majesty's Treasury. Poverty and unemployment rates are higher than elsewhere in Britain. It has been consistently sidelined, and it is unsurprising that the Northern Irish people's voice is not being heard during Brexit negotiations.

The greatest threat there isn't a resumption of violence, but Brexit. Agriculture is just one example: sure to be adversely affected if the supports provided by Europe aren't available after Britain leaves the EU. Currently, the North's farmers receive larger supports than their English counterparts as a less prosperous region.

It would be a step forward if the electorate stepped outside traditional affiliations on March 2 and voted on the substantive issues. However, politics and identity are closed linked in the North, and the outcome probably won't be much different after the dust settles.

Reconciliation has to be the way forward, then "the next vital stage of the peace process", in Mr McGuinness's words. It hasn't happened yet, and people of good faith are sorely needed to continue the work towards that goal.

It's a shame we aren't using Mary McAleese in an ambassadorial role: there must surely be some formal way for her to continue the bridge-building and outreach she began in the Áras. The former president speaks with authority and grace about the way forward post-conflict, as we were reminded during her measured overview of Mr McGuinness's contribution to Irish history on RTÉ's 'Six One News' this week.

Within the parties, visionary politics are essential - the ability to make the apparently impossible seem attainable, via a shared future that works for all. Such a scenario first happened almost 10 years ago, during the Paisley-McGuinness partnership, and it must be brought about again.

Personality will be a factor here. Mr McGuinness's successor should be someone capable of building on his work, but without his background in the IRA. The identity of Sinn Féin's new Northern leader will be revealed shortly, but the clue lies in Sinn Féin's frequent references to itself as a party in transition. From that, we can deduce the incoming leader is unlikely to be someone with a republican past. (Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil evolved in a similar way, although they dislike the reminder.)

Finally, direct rule benefits no party or tradition, and is not in Northern Ireland's best interests. So it is to be hoped that whoever succeeds Mr McGuinness understands why reconciliation matters, and the best way to progress it.

It would be nice if unionism learned from the Arlene Foster Tutorial, too.

Irish Independent

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